Human papillomavirus positive oropharyngeal cancer (HPV-positive OPC) is a distinct subtype of head and neck carcinoma (HNC) distinguished from HPV-negative HNC by its risk factor profile, clinical behavior, and molecular biology. Compared to HPV-negative HNC, HPV-positive OPC exhibits significantly better prognosis and an enhanced response to treatment. Recognition of the survival benefit of HPV-positive tumors has led to therapeutic de-intensification strategies aiming to mitigate treatment-related toxicities while maintaining high response rates. In this review, we summarize key aspects of oral HPV infection and the molecular mechanisms of HPV-related carcinogenesis. We review the clinical and molecular characteristics of HPV-positive OPC that contribute to its improved prognosis compared to HPV-negative HNC. We also discuss current and emerging treatment strategies, emphasizing potential mechanisms of treatment sensitivity and the role of therapeutic de-intensification in HPV-positive OPC. Lastly, we examine literature on the management and prognosis of recurrent/metastatic HPV-positive OPC with a focus on the role of salvage surgery in its management.
Keywords: Head and neck; Human papillomavirus; Oropharynx; Prognosis; Squamous cell carcinoma.